When Martyna Majok’s agent called to let her know that she won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for drama for her captivating play, Cost of Living, she was convinced he was joking. “Certainly somebody was pulling my leg,” shares Majok. “I was yelling at him on the phone for ten minutes so angry that he would play this joke on me. He laughed and said, ‘give it a minute and see if I’m actually joking.’”
After it sunk in, Majok, who is now 36, and has a gift for creating profoundly human characters, felt pure “elation.” She also discovered how this uber-recognition grounded her. “I realized it didn’t necessarily’t fix things. Somebody else giving me that kind of validation did not necessarily make all my problems go away,” says Majok.
This realization turned out to be a positive thing as it deepened her resolve. “It meant that I’m not done. I still have a drive to continue telling stories,” she adds. “The awards are wonderful and mean so much. But the drive to tell stories with and for other people is still there.”
Thankfully for us, Majok continues to write plays, telling stories about what divides and connects us, sometimes all at once. Even amid poignant moments, she is able to find humor. She doesn’t shy away from showing people at their messiest.”We all have the capacity to understand every other life,” she says. “We are all human. We all experience love, loss, betrayal and grief.”
Majok’s latest play, Sanctuary City, from New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW), is now playing at The Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York City. Directed by Rebecca Frecknall, the play centers around two teenage friends. G, (Sharlene Cruz), is newly naturalized. B, (Jasai Chase-Owens), is undocumented. Their lifelong bond runs deep but is constantly tested as they try to navigate how to survive in the United States.
The Sanctuary City team also includes actor Austin Smith, Caitlin Sullivan, (remount Director), Tom Scutt (scenic and costume design), Isabella Byrd (lighting design), Mikaal Sulaiman (sound design) and Merrick A.B. Williams (stage manager).
“I tend to write stories about people who I grew up with or stories of my family,” says Majok who immigrated to the United States from Poland when she was a child. She was mostly raised in a multicultural immigrant neighborhood in Kearny, New Jersey and has degrees from University of Chicago, Yale University and the Juilliard School. “I never necessarily set out to write political plays. It is just inherent in the circumstances of the characters.”
At its core, as Majok sees it, Sanctuary City is a play about love and caring for people. In his recent New York Times review of Sanctuary City Jesse Green writes, “I have rarely seen a play that so effectively embodies the way external forces—in this case, immigration policies in the United States—distort the inner lives of actual humans. What love is, and can ever mean, is lost in the muddle between the heart and the law.”
Ever prolific, Majok is adapting The Great Gatsby for the Broadway stage with Florence Welch and Thomas Bartlett writing music. She is also developing an original drama series for HBO based on her play Queens. What remains paramount is to continue to tell her characters’ truth. “It can sometimes be difficult,” she says. “The goal for the audience is to come away with a deeper understanding of what it is to be human together.”
Jeryl Brunner: When did you start writing?
Martyna Majok: I was always drawn to storytelling as well as drawing and painting. Because of the domestic situation that we were in, this volatile home, I would often close myself in my room and do quiet activities like writing or drawing. It wasn’t that I was escaping into them. I guess it was a way to keep me safe. When I began writing plays in college, I realized I was trying to understand a certain paradoxical human behavior. Why would somebody do some of the cruel things that they do?
I would go backwards from those actions and try to collect them in dialogue to understand people better as well as myself. I discovered one of the things I loved about writing for theater was that I had to be every character. Nobody could be just a victim. It let me embody their consciousness and helped me have a closer understanding of other people as well as myself.
Brunner: What has it been like to adapt The Great Gatsby with Florence Welch and Thomas Bartlett?
Majok: It’s cool to have collaborators so early. I get these songs texted or emailed to me. And I think, this is magical. If I could write music like that, I would trade playwriting to be able to have the ability to move a soul the way that music does.
Brunner: And what fascinating source material.
Majok: I read The Great Gatsby in high school and had a similar experience I think a lot of people had reading it then. Okay, this guy throws parties. Then I re-read it in January when they approached about the project. It was the perfect book to read in the middle of a pandemic in one’s thirties. The language is beautiful and transcendent. It’s so otherworldly.
There’s also this feeling of: is this really all life is? It is set a few years after the flu pandemic, a few years after the end of World War 1. Gatsby is a veteran. Nick is a veteran. All these people are coming out of a moment of intense devastation, having seen so much death around them, especially the death of younger people. There’s something really fascinating about that time in relation to the time that we are in right now. It it spoke to my soul in a way that I really needed.
Brunner: I read that the first Broadway show you saw was Cabaret when you were 18 or 17.
Majok: It was my last year of high school and was a total fluke that I ended up at the theater. I won $45 playing pool and decided to use the money towards something I never would have done had I come upon it legally. My mom was a house cleaner and would bring home pamphlets and magazines from her jobs that people recycled. There was a pamphlet for Roundabout’s production of Cabaret with John Stamos. To my mother that was, “Uncle Jesse’s in New York.” She asked, “is this of interest to you?” And I thought, tickets are 45 bucks. So I decided to go. I guess it changed everything.
In addition to being in a room where human voices are filling the space with so much life, it was a story that you can call “pretty dark.” It has a “tough” subject matter. But it was told with such humor, bawdiness and joy. There was a literal invitation in the beginning with “Willkommen” that I really responded to. It wasn’t compromising what it was about, but was still inviting. I’ve taken that as a lesson for how to approach the act of making theater.